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The Case for Why Social Media Is Essential to Building Effective Transparency (It may be different than you think!)

twitter @kpkfusion

This morning I published a simple twitter post that circulated quickly. The post was inspired by a Washington Post article on the Johnstown Pa airport. According to the Post article, the airport, though slightly used, became one of the first recipients of stimulus funds and has now received over 200M of federal money over a period of 10 years.

The twitter entry clearly hit a nerve. What I said was:

“The Johnstown airport is a good example of why social media is so important to achieving transparency.” I also said: “Spending intellectual capital simply to publish info is missing the whole point of transparency: better decisions.”

Here is what I meant.

Old World Transparency

Under the Economic Recovery Act, the federal government, in Title XV requires every state to collect data on transparency projects, and to publish that data in a master portal – Recovery.gov. Presumably, state and local governments are going to spend many tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars to meet transparency requirements defined in this way as they collect and save data, build large data warehouses and schemas, and do everything that it takes to comply with such a massive data engineering challenge.

The Economic Recovery Act requirement is essentially an “Old World” view of transparency. We can publish contract information on projects under the banner of transparency to an extreme. We can even enable public comment on data collected. But what will be accomplished? And at what cost? What is novel, or new about this old world model?

The Economic Recovery Act essentially establishes requirements for government organizations in much the same way that Sarbanes Oxley did for businesses. The underlying intent, as in Sarbanes Oxley was a good one – namely that through publication, organizations have incentive to be compliant and accountable to their stakeholders. But publication standing alone misses the point.

Under an “Old World” transparency model, the government agency acts outside of the network publishing information from the outside in.

New World Transparency.

In contrast, in a “New World” transparency model, government agencies act “in network” providing information from within to all citizens and stakeholders and then enabling those stakeholders and citizens to discuss and exchange the information with ever evolving solution possibilities. The power of “in-network” models is exponential. There are many studies in commercial markets that conclude that consumers (citizens) are up to 9 times more likely to act on the advice and exchange of their peers.

So how does this apply to transparency for stimulus and the Economic Recovery Act? Here is how.

Transparency has many dimensions. In the case of the Johnstown airport, and transparency projects like it, let’s say that all of the contract data is published. What is the consequence? The money has been allocated and spent. We might bring scrutiny after the fact. We might provide disincentives to future expenditures, though undoubtedly whoever is responsible for decision making was able to rationalize the expenditure.

Alternatively, what if social media were used to establish public views on alternative expenditures – perhaps in exactly the same area of Pennsylvania? If we said to the people of Pennsylvania – here is 2M or 200M of federal dollars, how would you spend it to create jobs in the region – are we confident that they would say “the Johnstown runway and airport”? Or might they say something else? Might we uncover alternative solution possibilities before the fact of expenditure so that choices are proactively, not reactively made? That is where social media can be helpful.

Social media can present alternatives on a local basis in a relatively short period of time. It can be used to gather ideas between and amongst alternatives. And it can be used to qualitatively, not only quantitatively, evaluate different ideas. In other words it can present decision makers with a clearer view of solution possibilities so that the “best” decision is made. This is no small deal.

In other words, transparency has another dimension. It isn’t simply defined by telling citizens what you are going to do and how much you have spent after the fact. It is involving them before decisions are made and along the way. Transparency in this sense creates citizen ownership and true involvement – not just sending a comment along on a federal agency Web site.

Dimensional Transparency is Critical to the Future of Government and Citizen Trust

There could not be a more critical challenge than for government to get transparency “right”. Think of the challenge this way. For every federal dollar that adds to the deficit and that does not improve productivity, our global competitive position is eroded in exactly the same way as if that dollar was spent in banking or financial bailouts, or any other expenditure that does not lead to production of goods and services.

Dollars wasted don’t ultimately put more people to work. Every dollar of stimulus expenditure has to count. Dollars that do not add to productivity will cause inflation and a weakening in the global position of the US Dollar. So government stimulus expenditures have to be effective. We have to get the most out of every dollar.

In the case of Johnstown airport and many stimulus projects like it, will transparency accomplish its intended purpose? One scenario from a citizen perspective might be: “You had all of these transparency requirements, published contract information, and still wasted the money.” The irony could be that narrowly defined transparency could actually lead to less not more citizen trust.

In contrast, if we broaden our view of transparency to promote true citizen inclusion through citizen networks established locally, on a decentralized basis, then citizens will become a part of establishing priorities, will take broader ownership of stimulus spending and the projects that it funds, and will be responsible for defining alternatives. Even if projects fail, or are sub-optimal, at least citizens will have had an opportunity for true inclusion. That is the type of behavior that will build trust and accountability.

How many more Washington Post/New York Times articles await us on stimulus funded projects that make little economic sense to the populous of citizens? Worse still, how many blog or SM exposes await? And won’t those articles inevitably erode citizen trust in the face of transparency – and possibly create an even more dramatic crisis in citizen confidence?

Like many readers, my first reaction to the WP article was one of affirmation – that this is the way that the federal government often works. Further, stimulus funds are going to be spent just as all federal funds are spent – often without accountability and broader purpose.

That is why social media should be used now to provide decentralized involvement in state and local citizen networks. Social media and citizen networks will ultimately build the trust that transparency through publication under the Economic Recovery Act so desperately seeks.

twitter @kpkfusion

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Kitty Wooley


I appreciate your continuing focus on the need for social media in building transparency; thank you. It certainly does seem that there should be much more interactivity, and that the bar has to be raised. Since you actually are in the business of involving citizens in decentralized networks, it occurs to me that you may have ideas about how to surmount a major barrier to increased interactivity in the federal government space especially.

When I heard Clay Johnson, Sunlight Foundation, speak on April 3rd at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, he mentioned a huge barrier that’s holding up more effective implementation of social media in government:
as yet, no one has figured out a way to deal meaningfully (read, understand, think about, prioritize, integrate, etc.) with the huge volume of comments that can be submitted. This issue applies at all levels of government, but sheer volume may have the potential to be the biggest huge challenge at the federal level.

For an example, Johnson used OpenCongress.gov and the thousands of comments that have been received by members of Congress about some bills. However, the same issue comes up in the case of proposed regulations and information collection clearances, to name two other processes. Absolutely, if we want to enhance citizen trust, increased transparency has to be accompanied by process improvements in these areas – or perhaps a total rethinking of goals and objectives. I would be interested in your thoughts on the subject, as would Clay Johnson, I’m sure.

Kitty Wooley

Kim Patrick Kobza

Kitty, We solved that issue many years ago. When I founded Neighborhood America with David Bankston we built the back end system to collect and manage thousands, or even tens of thousands of comments, images, video etc., Our front end sytems enable collection. Our back end systems enable administration, reporting and publication. We hold a patent on the technology.

There is also a behavioral element to organization – it is not just about the technology. For instance, it is often important to enable self segmentation by user citizens. That enables proper categorization. The key is to drive the 3 C’s : Characterization, categorization, and classification.

It is unfortunate that anyone believes that this capability does not exist. It does. We took our original experience when we built the solutions for Imagine New York for the Trade Center redesign and the memorial, and then used them for major media and large brands where they have been extremely successful. We also expanded public comment capability into social networking and social media platforms – again, all highly scalable.

There is a lot to it. And I would be very pleased to provide a Web conference for understanding – just so the next time someone says something like that in public you can correct the record. The capability does exist and much much more.

Björn Holmberg

I would love to attend such a Web conference, personally. I’ve been trying to think of a decent and durable framework for enabling a better citizen dialogue using social software and a conference on the nitty gritty of it would be extremely valuable.

Judith Dovers

I agree that social media can enable an expanded arena of participation from the interested, impacted and general public. I agree that integration software both to accumulate and categorize comments and to provide massive public forums – is very good especially for larger governmental entities. This software can be difficult to include in outreach planning activities for a number of smaller public organizations due to personnel and technology costs. Our organization wants to hear from more voices, wants that richer discussion, but wants to engage in discussions based on knowledge of the subject matter as well where the conversations can be informative and interactive, not knee jerk reactions based on whatever media outlet is influencing the participant on that day. This needs to be on a continuous basis, rather than at once a year major participatory events. I believe social media will enable us to do this but I fear the 30 sec. attention span!

Chris Hoffman


Do you know of any studies or analysis of the types of questions best suited for crowd-sourcing? Or anything dissecting when public polls prove effective as a decision making tool? I believe strongly in the tenets of democracy and in preserving personal liberties but sometimes can’t help but think that the unqualified – and let’s not forget not necessarily informed – majority do NOT always establish the best priorities.

Yes, there is wisdom in crowds, but let’s not forget that a certain type of crowd is also behind every bubble. Again, not to sound too contrary because I appreciate your thoughts and really think you’ve put some good insight here for all of us to share, but I keep getting this sneaking suspicion that if we accept that citizen involvement in decions is good per se or because intuitively it feels good, then we’re overlooking some really important fundamental.